Bestselling novelist Sara Foster also wrote our section on the best London books and films for The Holiday Goddess Handbag Guide to Paris, London, New York and Rome. This is her insider’s advice on Japan for new visitors.

How do you make the most of your first trip to Japan?
  • English is not widely spoken in Japan. Before you travel, go online and find out the kanji (Japanese script) for words you will need to use – e.g. hotel names, places of interest, train/bus/airport, etc. Take all these with you written down on paper, so you can show them to taxi drivers and the like. It will save you heaps of time and frustration.
  • Credit cards are not widely accepted in Japan. Seriously, take plenty of cash with you.
  • The ‘real Japan’ is often hidden away. Ask your receptionist where you can go to try the local cuisine and get a taste of the nightlife. Get them to mark it on the map and write it in kanji. Many superb bars and restaurants lie behind innocuous-looking front doors on darkened, empty streets.
  • Chopsticks are used in Japanese restaurants. Do not leave them sticking up in your food, as it resembles the sticks of incense in bowls that honour the dead. Neither should two people pick up food together. The only time this is an acceptable use of chopsticks is when collecting the bones of the dead after cremation.
  • Drinking etiquette in Japan is that you pour your neighbour’s drink and let them pour yours.
  • Bear in mind when choosing your restaurant (or your table) that smoking is still acceptable in many places. If you don’t want to eat in a haze, pick your spot carefully.
  • Protocol in Japan means taking your shoes off when entering temples, restaurants and houses. Pay attention to your hosiery. Socks or stockings should be clean and in good condition. Bare feet are not encouraged.
  • If you want to travel around the country, look at getting a JR rail pass. Note, they need to be purchased OUTSIDE Japan before you go, but they can save you a heap of money. If you have the time, you can also conserve cash by travelling on slower trains rather than bullet trains.
  • Don’t be put off by the complicated-looking ticket machines on the subway. Look for the ‘English translation’ button, and find your destination on the wall map, which will tell you the price of your ticket. Then use the touch screen prompts (and the buttons below the screen to select your ticket price).
  • On the whole, Japan is a relatively safe place to travel. But watch out for people speeding along on the pavement on their bikes.
  • If you want to experience Japanese hospitality, stay in a ryokan rather than a western-style hotel. Just bear in mind you will be sleeping on futons and there is usually no central heating available. Ryokans are sometimes located near onsens – which is the term for a hot spring/Japanese communal bath. The norm in these places is to get naked, so don’t go there unprepared! And remember to wash yourself thoroughly before you get in. If you have a tattoo, you may not be allowed to bathe, as they are a sign of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia).
  • Finally, keep your cash to yourself, as tipping is considered rude in Japan. As is blowing one’s nose in public, pointing at people, and not wearing a bra.

So now that you know, you’re good to go! Happy holidays.

Sara Foster’s first book, Come Back to Me, was published in Australia in 2010 and reached the Sydney Morning Herald top ten Australian bestsellers list. Her second book, Beneath the Shadows, reached No. 4 on the Australian Sunday Telegraph bestsellers list, and had rights sold in the USA and Germany. In 2011 she was nominated for Cosmopolitan Australia’s Fun Fearless Female awards.




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